In the present paper, we determine the localization and developmental regulation of N-cadherin in embryonic rat nerves and examine the role of N-cadherin in this system. We also identify a major transition in the architecture of embryonic nerves and relating it to N-cadherin expression. We find that in early embryonic nerves, N-cadherin is primarily expressed in Schwann cell precursors. Pronounced expression is seen at distal nerve fronts where these cells associate with growth cones, and the proximal nerve ends, in boundary cap cells. Unexpectedly, N-cadherin is downregulated as precursors generate Schwann cells, coinciding with the time at which most axons make target connections. Therefore, glial N-cadherin expression is essentially restricted to the period of axon outgrowth. We also provide evidence that N-cadherin supports the formation of contacts between Schwann cell precursors and show that these cells are a favorable substrate for axon growth, unlike N-cadherin-negative Schwann cells. Induction of N-cadherin expression in Schwann cells by neuregulin-1 restores their ability to form contacts and support axon growth. Finally, we show that the loss of glial N-cadherin during embryonic nerve development is accompanied by a transformation of nerve architecture, involving the appearance of endoneurial connective tissue space, fibroblasts, Schwann cell basal lamina, and blood vessels. Because N-cadherin is likely to promote the extensive glial contacts typical of the compact embryonic nerve, we suggest that N-cadherin loss at the time of Schwann cell generation allows endoneurial space to appear between the glial cells, a development that eventually permits the extensive interactions between connective tissue and individual axon-Schwann cell units necessary for myelination.
2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.